With The Silver Chair film now in the works, I decided to reread the Narnian Chronicles. I hadn’t cracked these books since I was a kid and wanted to see if they held up as I remember them. It’s pretty close, except the final book has gone from rock-bottom to the top of my list. That’s significant given its dire content. Here are my rankings, as an adult empathizing with the target audience.
1. The Last Battle. 5 stars. Children are still traumatized by this book and react by throwing it at their friends, railing against Susan’s fate, and wanting nothing to do with Christianity for the rest of their lives. This last is ironic, given Lewis’ intent to use Narnia as a benign evangelical tool and win children to Christ on lighter terms. In the previous six books he did this by papering over unpleasantries: Edmund was a Judas-traitor, but unlike Jesus’ disciple he was forgiven and redeemed; Digory was an Adam-analog (bringing evil into unfallen Narnia), but at least he and Polly weren’t bad enough to eat the forbidden fruit. The Last Battle pulls no punches and even kills you while you’re down. Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s wayward subjects (those sweet talking animals) are cast into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft (she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex). But this is what apocalypses are: outpourings of divine wrath that serve a “justice” so hyper it redefines the meaning of the word. They’re mysteries like the Book of Job. Certainly from a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle’s dark and depressing content is its strength. It’s the most honest of the seven books, and I think the absolute best, though as a kid I remember thinking it dry for the heavy-handed allegory. I was wrong: the Revelation-plotted narrative is tight and incredibly suspenseful. Evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious but also distressing.
2. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 4 ½ stars. Sea voyages work wonders in fantasy settings, but they seem to be loved or despised. I’m with the former for the introspective power. They’re as much about the journey as the destination, and that’s saying lot when the destination is Aslan’s Country. The description of the world’s end in these final pages is the best writing Lewis put down in the entire chronicles: the sea becomes sweet-water that when drunk is akin to imbibing sunlight; the crew can look directly into a sun thrice as radiant as it usually is; they can see miles down to the floor of a crystal-clear ocean; and after hitting a sea-scape of lilies, they come to Aslan’s country. And here, for the first and only time in the series, Aslan appears as a bleating sheep. This forces intriguing questions as to why he’s usually a feline warrior (Rev 5:5) instead of the abundantly testified “lamb of God” (Jn 1:29,36; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 13:8). The lion is a crusader’s Christ who glorifies warfare, but this book is devoid of battle and allows us to glimpse the lamb behind the lion. He inspires from a distance as the ship’s crew land on various islands and face spiritual evils. They abolish slavery, confront selfishness (Eustace) and greed (Caspian, Edmund) within themselves, achieve self-worth (Lucy, the Dufflepuds), and then barely escape their worst nightmares which come literally to life. Voyage of the Dawn Treader marks a maturing in Lewis’ vision, and it’s sad that the film adaptation was botched by pointless battle scenes and a ridiculous plot involving a sword quest. Unlike Prince Caspian which needed a major overhaul, this book is its own script, though admittedly one the film industry would never have courage to take on.
3. The Horse and His Boy. 4 ½ stars. There are three fantasy books that left extreme impressions on me as a kid: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, and this one, The Horse and His Boy. When I say “extreme impressions”, I mean they drew me in on that proverbial level that I became one with the narrative; I was part of it, and the magic was real. This was all the more impressive for a Narnia book, because unlike Middle-Earth and other realms, I wasn’t wild about the place. But I wanted the tale of Shasta and Bree to last forever. It’s a full-blown adventure that makes the first four books look like fables, mostly due to the self-contained environment. Narnia isn’t reached right away by magic; it’s the elusive goal earned by sweat and tears. Calormen is the main setting which must be escaped, and as an analog for our Arabic Muslim region it’s politically incorrect, which frankly I find delightful. There’s cracking intrigue in the city of Tashbaan, as Shasta and Aravis get separated and encounter different faces of the same political plot. My favorite part is still Shasta among the desert tombs: his terror of what could be lurking inside them, the cries of wild jackals, and the sudden appearance of a “cat” who comforts him through the night. As for Aslan, he is used quite well, not only as the benign cat, but as a hidden guide (the paw of providence), and a ruthless “humbler of the exalted”: Bree must learn that he’s nothing special if he wants to fit in with his horse kin in Narnia, and Aravis needs to come to terms with her own superiority complex. The part where she’s racing for her life and mauled by Aslan is another memorable scene. If The Horse and His Boy is no longer my #1 favorite of the seven, it’s still very close.
4. The Silver Chair. 4 stars. It’s funny that the best Narnia books are focused outside of Narnia — Calormen, the eastern sea, or in this case, the northern land of the giants. They have deeper resonance and less innocence than the first two books. Aslan’s role in The Silver Chair is curiously unique. Instead of “watching over” the kids or pro-actively assisting them, he sends them off with cryptic riddles (the four signs) to fend for themselves. On the one hand, this takes his Olympian aloofness to a record high, but from a dramatic point of view it’s very effective. There’s no paw of providence to bail the kids out when they screw up the signs, which they amusingly do at every turn. Jill and Eustace get trapped in a castle of man-eating giants and come close to being cooked alive, and when they escape to the dark underworld, things get worse. The silver chair itself is a fascinating device, that on one level works as a magical cage: it keeps Prince Rilian bound during his midnight hour of supposed insanity. But it’s also a metaphor for delusional entrapment, even addiction, as the chair reinforces the witch’s hold on him under the pretext of giving him what he “needs”: he has moments when he sweats and fights to be free of it, and there is also the fact that his plight began with an obsession (hunting every day for the snake that killed his mother). Possibly my favorite part of the story is the brief glimpse we get of Bism, the realm of the gnomes miles beneath even the witch’s underworld. When the film adaptation is released, I hope we’ll see more of this chaotic furnace where rocks and rubies pulsate with organic life.
5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 3 ½ stars. It’s famous, it’s widely loved, but it does have problems. First is the wonderland of Narnia itself, which is a hodgepodge of myths — Norse dwarves, Greek centaurs and fauns, even bloody Santa Claus, all jumbled around an allegory of Christ’s death and resurrection. The allegory works fine, but other intrusions don’t, especially the junk theology of “lord, liar or lunatic” preached through the scoldings of a professor. Obviously those aren’t the only conclusions one can draw about someone making an outlandish claim: people can be ignorant, immature, misinformed, misguided, or believe in myth. If a sane honest child told you about a magic wardrobe that leads to a fantasy land, you wouldn’t conclude she was right simply because she was sane and honest. But for all the pastiche and hollow evangelism, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe succeeds in ways that matter. It starts as a portal fairy tale, escalates into a clash of good and evil, then inaugurates a blissful era that we’re yanked out of feeling we’ve dreamed the whole thing. The winter setting is inspired, the White Witch a nasty piece of work, and Aslan’s sacrifice emotionally intense (Andrew Adamson’s film made the Stone Table scene very upsetting, and the story’s best). When Lewis wrote it he had no plans for other Narnia books, and it shows by its focus on “message” at the expense of literary craft. In that sense, it’s the most juvenile of the seven books — more than the others it condescends by interrupting the narrative to address readers directly. But there’s no denying its pure impact on kids, and I’d be lying if I said the Witch’s menagerie of animals turned to stone didn’t once give me a nightmare.
6. Prince Caspian. 2 ½ stars. This one has bigger problems. It’s a plot-rehash of the first book (liberating Narnia from a tyrant and installing a benign monarchy at Cair Paravel), but with a less interesting villain, lower stakes, and an Aslan who isn’t used well. Andrew Adamson rectified all these deficiencies in the film adaptation — which is actually the best Narnia film to date, and so it’s easy to forget how disappointing the book is. In the film the Telmarines are superb characters and exude rich culture, but in the book they’re just human ciphers. On screen Miraz steals the show, but Lewis’ Miraz is dimension-less. In the film Aslan is used perfectly, held in reserve until the very end, and his faith-test is for everyone — that the Narnians should not give up on him; in the book he jerks the Pevensies around with another “wardrobe” test, which is gratuitously petty considering they’ve witnessed his resurrection and reigned for years as kings and queens. The film exploits battle scenes, prolongs them, and adds more (notably the failed attack on Miraz’s castle), showing that if enemies have become mortal and less powerful than the White Witch, they are curiously harder to defeat — as if Narnia has become a Fourth-Age equivalent of Middle Earth. The book conveys none of this gritty darkness. There is Nikabrik’s proposal to invoke black sorcery, but a proposal it remains; only the film follows through by having the hag and werewolf summon evil right inside the sanctity of the How. The best part of the book is actually the kids’ reentry at Cair Paravel, where Lewis does a good job conveying the sense of loss and centuries gone by. Aslan’s waking the trees is a nice touch too, and redeems an otherwise poor role Lewis gave him. On whole, the book Prince Caspian is a banal story.
7. The Magician’s Nephew. 2 stars. Why did Lewis even write this one? Because he wanted to account for certain things in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: the wardrobe’s origins, the lamp-post in the middle of nowhere, the White Witch’s identity. But some things are best left unexplained, especially when you don’t have a good story. Narnia requires the biblical allegory, which is fine and proper. But unlike Aslan’s death and resurrection in the first book (which is dramatically intense) and his apocalyptic return in the last (which is vengefully devastating), his creation of the world in The Magician’s Nephew is rather uninspired. (Lewis did much better on this subject in the brilliant science-fiction novel Perelandra.) It’s further undermined by inappropriate comedy, and I’m not talking about the animals’ half-assed jokes. The entire sequence of Jadis coming to our world and raising hell on the streets of London is cartoonish even by standards of children’s literature. The good parts are The Wood Between the Worlds (the forest of pools is a neat concept) and the desolate world of Charn (the nobles who sit in suspended animation are creepy). But the bulk of the story falls flat for me.
If you had asked me 36 years ago, this is probably how I would have ranked them:
1. The Horse and His Boy — 5
2. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — 4 ½
3. The Silver Chair — 4
4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — 3 ½
5. Prince Caspian — 2 ½
6. The Magician’s Nephew — 2
7. The Last Battle — 2
So again, the only major change of heart I’ve had is for The Last Battle, and frankly my nine-year old self surprises me. I’ve always enjoyed dark and depressing stories. I probably just didn’t “get it” at the time, being unfamiliar with Revelation.